Destani Pascucci, 21, is homeless and staying at Travelodge in South Hackensack with money from the Bergen County Board of Social Services on 05/11/2020
Destani Pascucci sat on her motel bed and counted the last of her money. Flipping her pink pocketbook upside down, she spilled a pile of coins onto the brown blanket.
As she started counting dimes, her tiny room began to shake. A thousand feet away, a private plane taxied across the tarmac at Teterboro Airport. The plane is worth millions of dollars. As it turned onto runway No. 24, the plane aimed its twin jet engines directly at the Travelodge Motel, which cowers behind a used car lot on the wrong side of a six-lane highway.
The jet accelerated away. The loose coins jangled. Pascucci kept counting.
“OK! I have $3.69 to my name,” Pascucci, 21, said as the jet took off. “I have more than I thought I did. That’s enough to get the three-dollar meal at Burger King.”
Pascuccci’s cheer seems unforced. A year ago, she lived in an abandoned house on First Street in Hackensack, sneaking around in the cold and hiding from police. Eventually she found an apartment, and a job managing a Dollar General Store in Hackensack.
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Panic attacks led to her admission at Bergen New Bridge Medical Center this February. During a month in treatment, she lost the apartment and the job. She returned to a world turned upside down. She applied for work at a Dollar Tree, a Dunkin Donuts and a grocery store. All were closed due to the coronavirus. Landlords refuse to show apartments. The homeless shelter was closed.
“I’m not a drug addict. I can work,” she said. “The problem is just I can’t get a job, and I have no money.”
So the county social services department placed her here, at the Travelodge. It’s an intense place. Three years ago Sinead O’Connor filmed herself sobbing in the same motel, which she described as being in “the arse end of New Jersey.” The singer’s room was nearly identical to Pascucci’s, the same laminated wooden headboard hung from a wall covered in plastic tiles painted copper.
It’s the kind of place that offers unlived dreams a choice: You can drown, or you can learn how to float. The man in the room across the parking lot has blue tattoos down his face and the twitchy gait of a crack addict. Trash overflows the garbage bins, takes flight on gasps of wind.
But unlike the homeless shelter, at the Travelodge, Pascucci can close her door and lock it. She can shower anytime she wants, until the hot water runs cold. If Pascucci can find a job, if the government gets her an apartment, maybe she can escape this terrible motel before its madness sucks her in.
“There’s a lot of crazy drama here,” she said. “But if you keep to yourself, you can avoid the drama. It’s not bad living here. It’s not. It’s just temporary.”
Homeless people in New Jersey are the subjects of an experiment that’s never been tried before. Can one of the richest states in the richest nation on earth keep its most vulnerable residents sheltered and alive during a crisis that forces much of its social services infrastructure to close?
“People that are chronically homeless are usually older or have underlying medical conditions, so those individuals are most likely to get sick” from COVID-19, said Julia Orlando, director of the Bergen County Health and Human Services Center. “They’re more likely to need critical care, more likely to be intubated and not survive.”
Many shelters, food pantries and mental health agencies that haven’t closed are refusing new clients, reducing the risk of exposure to their existing residents. Retail stores, coffee shops and fast-food restaurants that usually offer bathrooms and cheap food to the homeless are shuttered by government order, leaving people on the street few options to meet basic needs.
“We can’t have a city where we ticket or arrest people for going to the bathroom outside if there are no bathrooms inside,” said Passaic Mayor Hector Lora. “Where do they use the bathroom? Where do they sleep?”
If left to fend for themselves, homeless people might congregate in groups, without masks to cover their faces or water to wash their hands, Orlando said. That could cause a coronavirus outbreak that’s especially hard to treat.
“I don’t want to inundate the overburdened health care system with my folks,” said Orlando, whose program offers a one-stop shop for shelter, food, and medical and psychiatric care. “So my role is to keep my folks out of a hospital.”
To prevent a public health catastrophe, agencies typically known for plodding bureaucracy are learning to dance on their toes. As recently as March 15, Bergen County’s primary homeless shelter housed 83 people, Orlando said. Within the month her agency placed some with family members or into permanent housing.
The 60 people who remained were moved into motels. The rooms are paid for by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, signed by President Donald Trump in late March, which allocated $1.8 trillion to the pandemic response.
The advertised price for a night at the Travelodge is $99.99, according to the motel’s website. That’s a lot of money for a place so close to the Teterboro runway it often seems a corporate jet might land in the parking lot. Reserving rooms in bulk for weeks at a time lowers the cost. But motels remain significantly more expensive than a bunk in the county shelter, Orlando said.
Meanwhile, the offer of a motel room reduced the risks of disease transmission, followed by costly hospitalizations at taxpayer expense.
“Prior to COVID, some consumers didn’t like the shelter and refused to stay there,” said Cheryl Tormo, director of clinical services for Comprehensive Behavioral Healthcare, a nonprofit based in Hackensack. “So now, during COVID, they’re willing to stay in the motels.”
Pascucci and other homeless people staying in motels receive dinners every afternoon from volunteers with Family Promise, a nonprofit group. Many residents who usually ride the bus to Bergen New Bridge Medical Center in Paramus now receive counseling services by phone, Tormo said.
In Passaic County, the nonprofit group Eva’s Village offers lunch to anyone who needs it. About 100 shelter residents found housing elsewhere. Their beds were left empty, limiting exposure to the 200 who remain, said spokeswoman Heather Thompson.
“This has been very difficult for the residents,” Thompson said. “Everyone’s feeling trapped and isolated. Especially people who were focused on rebuilding independence and doing something with their lives.”
The effort appears to be most successful in places where the intervention was most radical. In Passaic, the city government placed portable toilets near the Salvation Army and the police station for homeless people to use, Lora said. Meals are offered daily by the Salvation Army; showers and laundry services are available once a week at Dignity House, a service run by the city.
Among 18 homeless people tested by the city, six were found to have the virus, Lora said.
“If we can get them into shelters and get them care during winter storms, we can get them tested for COVID,” the mayor said.
At Eva’s Village, 14 residents and 13 workers tested positive or exhibited symptoms of the disease, Thompson said. In Bergen County, none of the 60 people staying in hotels has tested positive.
“I feel pretty safe here,” said Chris Dieyi, 29, a former shelter resident living at the Travelodge. “I’m just glad to have a roof over my head.”
Now social service leaders are planning for the pandemic’s end. With 100 vacant beds, and many employees reassigned to serving food, Thompson said the nonprofit group will have room for people rendered homeless by the shutdown.
“We can’t stay under these conditions forever,” Thompson said. “We have to start taking new residents in. There are people needing treatment.”
During the shutdown, many tenants can’t pay rent. Landlords who typically avoid government-subsidized tenants may be willing to accept them now, Orlando said. Using that leverage, she hopes to place all 60 homeless hotel residents into apartments before the shutdown ends, freeing up the entire Hackensack shelter for newly displaced people.
“The new people we’re going to be dealing with when this pandemic ends, they can work. They will need a little assistance, like rapid rehousing,” Orlando said. “I’m anticipating that the really tough time will be the fall.”
Tumult and loneliness
After the private jet took off, the mood at the Travelodge turned volatile. Chris Dieyi’s girlfriend started screaming and throwing food. As she threw him out, yellow rice landed in a pile on the floor.
In the middle of the commotion, Pascucci called her friend Mary Garrabrant and offered to paint her eyebrows.
“I love you!” Garrabrant, 33, said as she entered Pascucci’s room. “You’re like my daughter.”
When her makeup was complete, Garrabrant left in search of pot. Then she called Pascucci, asking for a lighter. Seconds later, Garrabrant sprinted from a distant motel room, looking panicked. A woman with gray dreadlocks followed her, shouting profanities.
“Please try me. Please?” said the woman in dreadlocks. “Nobody’s scared of you!”
Pascucci and Dieyi walked outside. They tried to calm Garrabrant down. Let it pass, they said. Everything was OK.
“It’s not OK. This is where I live!” Garrabrant said. “She’s threatening to kill me!”
The argument continued. A volunteer from Family Promise arrived with Pascucci’s dinner in a plastic bag. His mouth was covered by a white mask, but his eyes looked terrified. He knelt, dropped the bag in the middle of an oil-stained parking space, and hustled back to his car.
As he drove away, a South Hackensack police officer drove in.
“Oh, my God. Mary called the cops,” Dieyi said. “This is so unnecessary.”
The drama continued all night. Garrabrant, in an unfocused rage, cursed Pascucci. She declared they were no longer friends. By the following afternoon, Pascucci had barricaded herself inside her motel room.
“People probably think living here is great. You get time away from people, time to think,” she said. “It’s not great. It gets lonely really quickly.”
Christopher Maag is a columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his unique perspective on New Jersey’s most interesting people and experiences, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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